Former San Diego sheriff's deputy pleads not guilty to murder in shooting death of fleeing suspect

©The San Diego Union-Tribune

Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS

SAN DIEGO — A former San Diego County sheriff’s deputy accused of murder in the shooting death of a man escaping from custody last spring pleaded not guilty Tuesday, but few new details about the fatal encounter were shared in court.

The case marks the first time San Diego County prosecutors have charged a law enforcement officer with murder in the shooting death of a suspect.

Aaron Russell, 23, is accused of shooting Nicholas Bils on May 1 after the 36-year-old managed to get out of a state park ranger’s car as it pulled into the San Diego Central Jail entrance and take off running.

Authorities said Russell was a detentions deputy at the facility and was heading to work when he and a colleague saw the escape and chased Bils up Front Street.

Russell fired five shots at the unarmed man, but no other deputies or officers “as much as unholstered” their weapons, Deputy District Attorney Stephen Marquardt said during the arraignment Tuesday in San Diego Superior Court. Bils sustained five gunshot wounds, including a grazing wound.

Defense attorney Richard Pinckard said his client was acting within the scope of his duties and there are “significant defenses” that will be made in the case.

Russell was arraigned via video connection from the Central Jail. Audio of the arraignment was livestreamed on YouTube, which San Diego Superior Court has been doing for several weeks as COVID-19 concerns keep courtrooms closed to the public.

After hearing from attorneys on both sides, Judge Francis Devaney cut Russell’s bail in half, dropping it to $500,000 as the defense had requested. Russell had been jailed in lieu of $1 million bail since Monday when he voluntarily surrendered to authorities.

In setting the bail amount, the judge takes into consideration whether the defendant is a flight risk or poses a public safety threat, “and frankly, I can’t find he’s either in this case,” Devaney said.

Russell resigned from the sheriff’s department a few days after the fatal shooting.

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